Arts and Culture

The new digital divide

Greg Gordon

Government indecision about broadcast system delays roll-out.

South Africa’s television broadcast industry faces an uncertain future. The lack of a clear picture over which digital broadcast technology the country should adopt has broadcasters and the government at loggerheads, leaving consumers in a quandary about which services—broadcast and technological—they should plump for.

For consumers it’s not the worst kind of problem because, whatever the outcome, they will end up with better viewing technology. But broadcasters are scratching their heads and even pulling out their hair as they grapple with shifting broadcast standards, formats, competition and that now hoary, disruptive stirrer—the internet.

The country’s early TV broadcast history is beguilingly simple: terrestrial services were introduced nationwide by the state broadcaster, the SABC, in 1976.

Late by world standards but a minor miracle given the ideological opposition from the Nationalist government’s conservative inner circle, which viewed it as the work of the devil, undermining its complex and broadly maligned policy of apartheid by potentially offering perspectives beyond its control.

Although programming was crude and pushed the party line, it did, by nature of the medium, broaden the outlook of viewers by broadcasting content that took them beyond the country’s borders and political island.

Ten years later the SABC’s broadcasting monopoly ended. In 1986 subscription-based MNet was launched and steadily grew its user base. It turns out people with the means are prepared to pay for premium content.

DStv, MNet;s digital satellite service, was launched in 1995. The subscription-based entity, with a broad array of local and international stations, is available in both South Africa and throughout Africa.

E.tv, South Africa’s only free-to-air channel, got off the ground in 1998. It occupies a unique space. SABC’s three channels, 1, 2 and 3, derive revenue from advertising and licence fees. DStv and MNet have subscription fees as well as advertising. E.tv relies solely on advertising yet it has captured about 22% of South African eyeballs based on that model, behind SABC1 but ahead of other channels. Independent local news is a great drawcard and even forced the state broadcaster to shift its evening prime-time bulletin to the same time as e.tv’s—an hour earlier than its historical timeslot.

Completing the picture of South Africa’s TV landscape is Top TV, a low-cost subscription service launched this year, and the forthcoming launch of Super 5 Media, which aims to use a mix of complementary technologies to make TV broadcasts more interactive for viewers.

Technologically the SABC dodged a bullet—from the outset it broadcast in colour and aligned itself with the European PAL standard, of much better quality than the American NTSC system or the Eastern Europe and Central African Secam standard.
As a new digital broadcast system is mooted, however, and scheduled for implementation by an International Telecommunication Union deadline of 2015, the government appears to be rethinking the standard to which it and other African countries committed themselves in 2005.

TV broadcasts happen in two formats—analogue and digital. The current analogue system will be phased out by digital, freeing up broadcast spectrum so stations can deliver more and higher-quality content. The satellite technology used by DStv and Top TV is already digital.

South African broadcasters have been gearing up for terrestrial digital TV using a European technology called digital video broadcasting — terrestrial (DVB-T). But the government recently said it is also investigating a competing broadcast technology standard — Japan’s integrated services digital broadcasting terrestrial standard (ISDB-T) — as part of a review process.

That comes late in the day and after considerable investment by broadcasters in gearing up for DVB-T infrastructure roll-out.
Lara Kantor, e.tv’s group executive of regulatory strategy, says the industry is hopeful that sanity will prevail.

“Broadcast spectrum is limited and digital broadcast technology will free this up for other uses like telecommunications. It also a great deal more efficient—about 12 channels can be broadcast digitally in the space just one channel occupies on the current analogue system. Picture and sound quality is improved too.”

Kantor says DVB-T and ISDB-T offer similar benefits but the set-top boxes of the latter are more expensive. Couple that with the investment that has already been made in DBV-T locally and it becomes difficult to justify a move to ISDB-T for broadcasters and the nine-million TV households in South Africa that will have to upgrade their systems to accept the digital broadcasts.
But it’s not just terrestrial broadcasts that have been thrown into turmoil. Regulatory delays effectively scuppered the uptake of mobile TV — television broadcasts to cellphone handsets.

This has been a non-starter in South Africa, despite a flicker of promise when the technology first became available in 2006. Digital video broadcast—hand-held (DVB-H) roll-out was hampered by long delays in licensing and, although e.tv has a licence and MultiChoice has piloted services, consumers have largely ignored it. You could say 36-million people—the number of active cellphone subscribers in South Africa—can’t be wrong.

Says Arthur Goldstuck, internet analyst and managing director of research firm Worldwide Worx: ‘When DVB-H services were mooted in 2006, 6% of respondents indicated they had tried it and 6% said they intended to. By last year just 1% said they had tried it and 1% said they might give it a bash. That’s about the lowest possible response in our annual mobility study.”

DVB-H technology is included in a few high-end handsets through dedicated receivers but it appears to be a broadcast technology whose time has come and gone although there is some take-up in Europe.

“It’s not a serious contender for viewers’ attention,” says Goldstuck.

“Even popular web channels like YouTube are used principally to view short clips and archival TV content. Cellphone TV was always going to occupy the space between full-blown satellite or terrestrial TV broadcasts and those streamed over the internet. There’s just not enough going for it to make viewing TV broadcasts on a cellphone compelling enough for people,” he says.

In terms of television technology, viewers have a growing set of options to choose from. Older cathode-ray tube TVs are all but gone except at the lower end of the market. Picture quality is fairly poor by modern standards and the units themselves are bulky—much deeper than their higher-resolution flat-panel counterparts.

Prices of some flat-screen sets have dropped significantly of late but you have to compare apples with apples. Basically consumers have four technologies to choose from: plasma, LCD, LED and 3D.

Plasma technology is ageing and images produced by LCD sets are now of sufficiently good quality to supplant them. LED sets, which are more expensive, are accommodated in thinner frames and produce crisper, more detailed and brighter images. Full HD (high definition) sets are now standard as replacements for lower-resolution so-called HD-ready TVs.

The new kid on the block is 3D TV—screens that can produce three-dimensional images. Programming captured on special 3D cameras makes watching them a more immersive experience for the viewer but you have to wear special glasses to obtain the effect. 3D TV is a nice-to-have but it’s pricey and most broadcasters offer limited, if any, content. That said, they’re great for games consoles that support the technology. Don’t expect them to become mainstream any time soon.

Looking ahead, South Africa’s television industry faces significant challenges. New broadcasters are opening up the market for increased competition against the backdrop of a vacillating regulatory landscape.

It’s still not clear how more interactive services using internet technology are going to play out but, oddly enough, consumers with deep-enough pockets have a growing number of diverse TV viewing options both in terms of the content they have access to and the technology used to view it.

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